Tick Facts, Identification and Control
Scientific Order: Acari
Common Family: All ticks fit into one of two main families: hard ticks (family Ixodidae) and soft ticks (family Argasidae). All common species in New York are hard ticks.
Common Species in New York:
Deer (or blacklegged) tick (Ixodes scapularis)
American dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis)
Lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum)
Brown dog tick (Rhipicephalus sanguineus)
Groundhog tick (Ixodes cookei)
Size: Varies from ⅛ inch or 3.12 millimeters (blacklegged tick, groundhog tick), to ¼ inch or 6.35 millimeters (American dog tick, lone star tick). Engorged ticks may look larger or rounder.
Color: Brown, red-brown, or tan bodies varying in shade from light to dark. Engorged ticks often appear darker. American dog ticks have light-colored striped markings on their backs. Female lone star ticks have a single, distinctive white spot on their backs.
Behavior and Diet
Ticks are infamous for feeding on the blood of a wide variety of mammals. They hunt for prey by climbing to elevated positions via tall grass, brush, leaves, or low branches. Usually they won’t go higher than around 18 inches. Upon reaching a likely spot, ticks extend their front legs out in front of them. From this position they can grab hold of, crawl, or drop onto prey passing nearby. A tick’s front legs possess specialized organs which can sense the carbon dioxide naturally exuded by potential hosts.
Ticks can climb onto their prospective host from any nearby surface. Once they’ve found a way onto their prey’s body, ticks crawl to a vulnerable position to begin feeding. Contrary to popular belief, ticks cannot fly or leap from their perches. They have to come into direct contact with their target in order to latch on. Ticks may drop from tall grass onto the lower body of their prey, but they never drop from high perches like trees.
Ticks are active throughout spring and summer, but they dislike excessive heat, so they’re most active during mild springs and early summer. In hot weather, ticks generally seek shade or shelter until evening, though they will still hunt actively.
Prey preferences and hunting habits vary by specific species and availability. Ticks tend to be opportunistic hunters, feeding on whatever prey happens to enter their hunting grounds. The pest transmits diseases from animals to humans by ingesting the blood of an infected animal and then feeding on a human.
Ticks must stay attached to hosts for the entire duration of their feeding, which may take up to two days. It only takes ticks 24 hours to transfer diseases to the human bloodstream after they begin feeding, so the immediate removal of attached ticks is paramount. Once ticks finish feeding, they’ll detach and find a comfortably dark and enclosed space to rest and digest.
Reproduction and Life Cycle
Most ticks feed on three separate hosts in their lifetime. They must consume a blood meal to molt into the next life stage. Females must consume a blood meal to lay eggs, as well. Ticks complete four developmental stages in their lifetime: egg, larva, nymph, and adult. The full life cycle process typically takes two years, though hot weather may expedite it.
Female adult ticks lay their eggs in single, large egg piles. Egg incubation period depends on temperature, but typically takes between three weeks and two months. Unseasonably warm springs or mild winters may facilitate faster egg hatching and create a particularly bad tick season. Adult ticks often lay their eggs in late fall so that offspring will survive the winter as eggs, to hatch in the spring. Tick eggs are circular, red-brown, and very small. They may resemble tiny beads.
Unlike many pest species, tick larvae are not inactive. They are capable of feeding and must feed to advance to the nymph stage. Tick larvae look similar to their adult counterparts, except that they’re smaller and they have three pairs (6) legs instead of the four pairs (8) that nymphs and adults possess. They may also differ in color, especially early on, when they tend to be lighter than adults or nymphs. Tick larvae are so small that they may be mistaken for mites or seeds.
Larvae tend to take longer to feed than other life stages, often latching onto their prey for 3-9 days until engorged. When fed, larvae look round and change color, often from light brown to a darker grey color. After feeding, larvae detach from their host, find a nearby shelter, and use the energy produced by the blood meal to molt. Molting from larva to nymph can take anywhere between 6 to 23 days.
After a larva sheds its skin, it has developed into a nymph. Nymphs look even more similar to fully formed adults than larvae do; they have the same coloration and grow the full set of legs. The only identifying difference between nymphs and adults is size. Nymphs are roughly one-third to half the size of adult ticks.
The most unique aspect of nymphs is their ability to live without food or water for long periods of time. The tick life cycle is timed so that ticks enter either the egg or the nymph stages shortly before their first winter. After molting, nymphs may enter a period of extended dormancy called quiescence. Quiescence allows nymphs to conserve heat and energy in order to survive the cold of winter, as long as they can find suitable shelter. Nymphs come out of quiescence in early spring and find hosts. After feeding, they molt again and finally reach adulthood.
Adult ticks have hard bodies, with a shell or shield-like external plate on their back called a “scutum.” Their bodies appear mostly flat and beetle-like, but when they’re engorged, they become much wider and round. Adult ticks quest and mate in early spring and fall, but they maintain some level of activity through the summer.
Female ticks have to feed as adults in order to produce eggs. They will feed on a wide variety of hosts, including deer, dogs, cats, rodents, rabbits, reptiles, amphibians, and (of course) humans. Adults tend to be more aggressive than the earliest stages, and may actively seek out the prey they sense with their legs, rather than waiting for it to come to them. Males also feed on prey and may remain attached for days. They usually detach faster than females, however, since they don’t require egg-laying energy. Adult ticks die immediately or shortly after mating and laying eggs, completing the life cycle.
Signs of Infestation
Obviously, the most evident sign of tick infestation are frequent tick bites. If you ever discover a tick latched onto you or a family member, retrace your steps. Think about when you could have come into contact with the tick. Home gardens tend to provide the perfect perches for questing ticks, as do shrubs, bushes, and tall grasses.
Ticks require blood meals at every stage of their lives, so they tend to go where the prey is. Look for signs of ticks on your pet and your pet’s bedding. The skin around your pet’s eyes, paws, shoulder blades, lower legs, noses, and ears are the vulnerable spots ticks tend to latch onto when attached. Tick-infested pets may scratch themselves frequently and develop rashes, or even become feverish or lack appetite. Ticks often nestle into pet bedding to wait for their prey there.
Ticks can’t handle excessive heat, so during hot summer months they shelter in dark, enclosed locations where they can rest until evening. Ticks tend to stay elevated but low to the ground, so look for them around siding, moulding, and low plants.
Nymphs need to find shelter to enter quiescence and survive the cold of winter, so most indoor tick infestations occur in the late fall. The ideal habitat for quiescence is a warm, enclosed, dark, moist area. You may find nymphs tucked behind furnaces, appliances, or fixtures in your basement, crawl space, attic, or boiler room. These ticks may attempt to leave your home in spring, when it warms up enough.
Treatment and Prevention
Starting in early spring, consult your veterinarian about how you can prevent ticks from feeding on your pets. Apply anti-tick repellent to your pet regularly during tick season, especially if they spend a lot of time outside. Check your pet for ticks after they’ve spent any amount of time outdoors, paying special attention to their paws, legs, ears, nose, and back.
When walking outside, avoid stepping near or through tall grass, shrubs, or bushes. Wear long sleeves, pants, and long socks, especially when spending extended periods of time in areas where ticks may live. Check your own body for ticks when you get back home after spending time outside, paying special attention to your ankles, legs, and armpits.
Vacuum, wash, and clean pet bedding and housing regularly. Remove shed pet hair from furniture and other places where it collects as you find it. Keep any green space you have well-tended and mowed. Trim bushes, ornamental grasses, and other plants regularly to prevent them from getting overgrown. Try to prevent your pet from running through or spending time in bushes or other ornamental plants.
If you find a tick, make sure you remove it immediately. Use a tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the site where it’s attached as possible. Do not squeeze the tick’s abdomen or body while you’re detaching it. Gently but firmly pull back on the tick from its head or mouthparts until you pull it out. Don’t jerk, twist, or wiggle the tick as you try to detach it, or you could pull only part of the tick out instead of the whole thing. Wash and clean the site of the bite thoroughly and use antiseptic and germicide. If the tick could have been attached to the body for longer than 24 hours, consider consulting your doctor.
New York City Health’s Ticks “Health Topics” page
National Pesticide Information Center Ticks and Tick Bites Pest Control Information page
Cornell University Department of Entomology Insect Diagnostic Laboratory Integrated Pest Management for the deer (blacklegged) tick info sheet
“Tick Biology for the Homeowner” fact sheet by Cornell department of entomology professors Roy Faiman, Renee R. Anderson, and Laura C. Harrington
Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences Department of Entomology groundhog tick Insect Advice from Extension page